By Mark Bloch WM New York
“Semina Culture” was an exhibition memorable for crudely refreshing Beat Era collages and artsy black and white photographic portraits of cult personalities. There were astounding paintings, poems, films, books, found objects, mail art, and publications. But the spiritual centerpiece was the collection of all nine issues of that legendary periodical/mail art hybrid where the sacred met the (to some) obscene--Wallace Berman’s pre-zine “zine” Semina published from 1955 to ‘64--a deceptively casual gesture-as-art that now reads as a precious, prescient cultural artifact of the In-Crowd.
Semina,unbound, irregularly-published, irregularly-sized,with loose copies of never more than thirty sheets, in editions of between 150 and 350, collected together into a viewing experience that the recipient would receive in a tiny envelope by post, was the virtual place that Berman and friends strutted their considerable stuff—Hebrew letters, sexy images of female faces and bodies, pre-Pop, pre-Surf homages to Lenny Bruce, Cocteau, Artaud and peyote. Semina was like an occasionally mailed deck of cards but perhaps like some of the misunderstood contributors, this was not a full deck.
There did happen to be fifty-two artists that surrounded Wallace Berman in this exhibition, presented as a trick deck of pioneering art kings, queens, jokers and aces that dazzled, depressed and demystified as needed. As the cards were shuffled and each was played in this traveling exhibition that hit NYU as well as Utah, Kansas, and Berkeley, after originating at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, (and now living on in the powerful coffee table book, Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and his Circle) nonchalant observers were transformed into disbelieving witnesses to an extraordinary Beat Generation slight of hand: Berman,living in California (LA with a brief stint in SF) with inspiring intensity and integrity from 1926 to 1976,(and then dying at the hands of multiple-offense drunk driver in a car crash on the very eve of his Fiftieth birthday) drew magnetically to himself a rough-hewn Rogue’s Gallery of poets, actors, dancers, druggies, ne’er do wells, visionaries and mid-century multi-media collagists and output them here, into the ugly nadir of the overly-rehearsed “W” Era, darkly, mysteriously, and irreverently but also joyfully and unapologetically, from beyond the grave, into a museum-quality, must-see exhibition trumpeting the return of this most important West Coast innovation that bridges early Hollywood and the Beach Boys, a Golden State precursor to the scruffy populist hijinks of Basquiat and other East Village artists, a parallel to both the collages and mail art of Ray Johnson (with whom Berman corresponded), an under-the-radar offshoot of the Surrealists and Charles Henri Ford’s View that preceded them and the visual poetry, concept art, and avant-cinema of Fluxus, who followed soon after.
Berman’s mastery of the Verifax machine, a precursor to the copier, and his frequent use of the aleph and other Hebrew lettering, gives his work a feel of being simultaneously ancient and high tech in the transistor radio world of the 1960s. In this complex game of pure American Fifty-two Pickup, Berman was embossed on every dog-eared corner of this marked deck, influencing and intuiting with illusions of grandeur.
Strata of superstardom defined the burning ring of fire that surrounded Berman’s slow Topanga Canyon trajectory. Each was featured in this show with a bio and a few powerful works. Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and Russ Tamblyn of Hollywood fame show their considerable visual art chops as do literary icons Henry Miller, Allen Ginsburg, Diane DiPrima and cinematic pioneers Bruce Conner and Jack Smith. We also meet choreographer Toni Basil, once romantically linked to Stockwell, then a filmmaker, and later the (39 year old) cheerleader in the 1982 pop hit she created, “Hey Mickey;” Walter Hopps, organizer of Duchamp’s first retrospective, Warhol crony Taylor Meade, early Beat poet Michael McClure, Black Mountain wordsmith Robert Duncan and his lover, the gifted collagist Jess, are only a few of the congregants in this cult of personality.
In addition to Berman’s savagely final death ride for which no perpetrator was ever punished, there were some grizzly stories that emerged as I wove my way through the show. Lew Welch, who roomed in college with Beat writers Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen, was randomly sent to Berman’s apartment in his job as a SF cab driver, becoming inspired by this new friend-for-life, but bouts with depression eventually led to his disappearance in the woods in Northern California in 1971. His body was never found.
Billy Jahrmarkt was significant not only because he opened the important Batman Gallery in 1960 for 14 months but also because he acquired, to make art, the essential Verifax machine that was passed on to Berman after Jahmrkt lost interest. But the gun nut and junkie moved to Afghanistan in the early 70's where he shot himself by accident and bled to death.
Bobby Driscoll was a successful child film star in the 1940s, who was then abruptly jettisoned by Disney. He quit acting, took up motorcycle racing, making moody collages, and inventing but was later arrested on various charges and sent to Chino State Prison where he lost touch with the group and spent the second half of his short life as a drug addict. His body was discovered in 1968 by kids playing in an abandoned Greenwich Village tenement.
Along the way, Driscoll introduced to Berman to Billy Gray, who played Bud on TV’s Father Knows Best. Such is the web of connections that made the social aspects of this exhibition as fascinating as the extraordinary work they created, individually and together. Berman was the common link, giving the disparate collection of seemingly unrelated people and their achievements focus. Just as Berman brought Semina and his circle magically to life, exhibition curators (and the book’s editors) Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna finally played the Berman card for a contemporary audience in the form of this show. It is long overdue.
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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